In the midst of the NHL’s suspended season and the global coronavirus pandemic, NHL legend and current alternate governor for the Edmonton Oilers Wayne Gretzky spoke with The Hockey News’ owner and publisher W. Graeme Roustan about how he and his family are staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic and shared his point of view of how a player's priorities shift through a league stoppage.
Graeme Roustan: Today we have Wayne Gretzky with us for Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News. Wayne, thanks very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us today.
Wayne Gretzky: My pleasure. Thank you.
GR: You're an executive with the Edmonton Oilers. From an executive point of view, how are people within the company doing? What is the directive for those employees? Are they working from home?
WG: Like everything else, pretty much everything is shut down at this point in time. Safety is the biggest concern. But not just the health and well being of the people who are working, but probably just as important are the parents and grandparents of those people. So there's a huge concern. Like every other company or any other business in North America, the hockey world is at a standstill in the sense that we really don't know what the future holds.
Obviously, as a nation, at some point in time, we will overcome this. The best advice I could give people is that we have to follow the path of what the medical experts are telling us. And consequently, we need to put everything on the back burner. Whether it's the people that were cleaning the ice, cleaning the arena, serving at games or handling marketing, everything has to be put on hold right now. It's a scenario of concern because nobody has ever been in this situation before. Hopefully, people remain unselfish and understand that what we're being told is for the benefit of every individual and for the benefit of North America. So we're all in the holding pattern. The orders are probably no different than any other franchise in sports or any other business.
GR: As a former player, how do you look at this? What would your priorities as a player be in a time like this?
WR: Your family has to be No. 1. That's what your main concern is right now, keeping your family healthy, whether it's young kids or your wife or your parents and grandparents. That's the biggest concern. Secondly, it's your mindset. Back in 1994 when we had the lockout, it was different because the world didn't stop – the game itself stopped. So you weren't restricted to move, escape, train, get ready, be with your teammates. Ultimately, we knew that eventually we were going to go back to playing hockey. And that obviously happened in early January, but at least we could mentally focus on the fact that it would end at a certain time. In this case, you're sort of under house arrest in the sense that you can't go skate. You can't work out with your teammates. Your mindset is, 'I gotta do something because we don't know if this thing will last another three weeks or whether it's going to last two months. Whether we won't be playing hockey again until October.' So mentally, it's a tougher challenge for the athletes today. But everybody is obviously a little bit nervous and scared, hoping that this doesn't get any worse than it is right now.
You've got to think about your family. But you also got to have that sense of, gosh, I got to do something because six weeks from now the thing might be corralled. And hopefully it is, and let's hope for the best. And if that happens, we could be seeing hockey in late June, July, August. As a professional player, and I can't speak for anybody else, but if the league said, 'OK, we're cleared and all the medical people say it's a go', I would hope the players were thinking the way I would be: that I want to play hockey, and let's get out there and try to cheer some people up and do something we love doing. So hopefully this can get corralled and fans from all over North America can sit by their TVs or go to a game and be able to enjoy themselves and sort of breathe a sigh of relief that we've corralled this unfortunate pandemic.
GR: Does the cancellation of all the events affect the player's psyche at all? Can they really sort of compartmentalize this and keep all of this other noise out of their vision at this time?
WG: Well, athletes are the same as anyone else. They're pretty worldly in the sense that when you see a suspension of the NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball, that it's sort of a domino effect. I don't think anybody even questions it. I think that the players feel that's the right thing to do. I mean, I can't speak for every athlete, but I would hope that's what they're saying – that this is for the safety of the world, and that it's far more important than any sport. But on the other side of it, sports is a sense of relief and entertainment for people. We will get through this. Sports puts smiles on people's faces. And the good Lord knows we need some smiling faces right now, because this has been a tough time for a lot of people. It hasn't been fun, and people have lost their jobs, people have lost their businesses. It's a big part of the psyche of our world to make people smile, and so hopefully this doesn't last a whole lot longer.
I wouldn't mind seeing hockey in July and August. I think it would be very entertaining for people, and hopefully we get to that point where the medical people say we can start going about our business as usual. Let's get back to a somewhat normal life. It has changed a lot, and maybe a lot for the better in the sense of more conscious now of crowds and coughs and shaking hands and all that goes with that. I think this has affected the entire world, not just one particular place.
GR: You're on the ownership side, but you'll always be a player in the eyes of most of us. Looking at the Olympics going forward, with everything going on, are the players thinking more about the future of hockey-related travel?
WG: I don't think there's any question that we're all way more aware of what's out there compared to five months ago. So from that point of view, it's not just athletes, it's the entire world is more aware of what's happening. But I think ultimately, players love to play. And players love to compete against the best in the world. But they're also very respectful. And they'll leave that in the hands of the commissioner's office and the (NHL) Players Association leadership and a sense that if they can work out all the details, and they can assure the players and their families that it is not unsafe to go participate, then I think the players will be all for it. I just think that they have to have that assurance, like anyone else in business, that it's safe to travel to places like China. So hopefully two years from now, this will all be behind us. I had a thrill in 1998 competing in Nagano at the Olympics, so I think all the players feel that way.
GR: From an owner and executive management point of view, are you more dialed into that now than you were prior to this virus?
WG: I think injuries, unfortunately, are always a part of professional sports. I only played in the 1998 Olympics, but I participated in the 1981, 1984, 1987 and 1991 Canada Cups. I played in the World Championships in Finland. Injuries are part of being a professional athlete, and you can't worry about it. Are we concerned that Connor McDavid would go and play with Team Canada and get hurt and can't play for six weeks? Yeah, every team has that concern. But the other sense of it is, why would you want to take that opportunity away from one of the elite players in the world to participate in the games? It's going to only help our country and help the game grow. You can't really worry about that. That's just part of it. I'd be more concerned if he didn't want to play rather than if he went over there and got injured.
GR: I first met you in 1990 back in L.A. You've been an L.A. resident ever since. How are you and your family dealing with this?
WG: My daughter and her husband Dustin (Johnson) and the two boys are in Florida and they're hunkered down. There's really no socializing or anything. My oldest son just got married, and him and his wife are at her folks house. My son is in Phoenix, same thing, sort of under house arrest. And I have typically like everyone else have a 19- and 17-year-old that are at home and pretty much hunkered down. They don't really leave the house unless they want to go pick up some food or go to the grocery store. Really, the socializing for them has come to a complete halt. But it's like every other parent. It's tough for kids to understand exactly what's going on. This is a hard thing for people to take in, and our family is no different than any other family out there. Like everyone else, we're trying to follow the guidelines that the medical people put out each and every day and follow what the governor is saying and what the mayor of L.A. is saying that everyone is just trying to do their part.
The greatest thing about being on a hockey team is the success of a team, and that is because of the unselfishness of each and every player. And that's where we're at as a society right now – we have to be so unselfish in the sense that we have to kind of abide by what's going on and follow and listen to the instructions that are going to benefit our country. And for the health and safety of everyone, we need to all follow these guidelines. And so, my community is a smaller community, Westlake, and pretty much everyone is trying to follow those guidelines. And it's tough for everyone right now. Nobody has it easy. It's a tough situation. I have a lot of friends that have small businesses and employ a lot of people, and it's not fun for them right now. It's a tough time for the entire world.
GR: I do have one last question about your dad, Walter Gretzky. He's famous around my factory in Hespeler. He comes over for sticks or for many years. He would just walk in the front door in Hespeler, Ont. and just walk through the factory and everybody knows him there. And they love him there and they still talk about him. How's he doing?
WG: Janet and I are like every other family. Janet's mom is close to 99, and she lives in St. Louis, and we worry for her health and safety because she's older, but she's extremely sharp and healthy. My dad, he's at home. He's on lock down. And my sister's kind of guarding the fort. It's kind of a tourist stop and my dad lets anybody and everybody through the house. People over the last few weeks have been kind enough to sort of stop and not do that. So he's kind of isolated. And obviously, with his health issues and his Parkinson's battle, he's a major concern. We're no different than any other family that's out there right now. We worry for our elderly. And all you can do is, like I said, and I can't emphasize it enough: really pay attention to what the medical people are advising and try to stick to those guidelines as best we can. And, hopefully, we all get through this and there's a light at the end of the tunnel and people are smiling again and sports are back on and people can enjoy life again.
Parts of this Q&A have been edited for clarity.
Want more in-depth features and analysis? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.